It started with a complaint about late-night noise. Now, more than five years later, a feud at Minnesota’s largest condo complex shows no sign of ending.
The long-running dispute at Meadow Creek Condominiums has included malicious websites, vulgar protest signs and noisy demonstrations. The fight has spilled out of the complex into City Hall and the courts, with six-figure judgments and six-figure legal fees. The mayor of Hopkins and the City Council urged the two sides to work out their differences — to no avail.
Mel Pittel, a Meadow Creek condo owner, has led the battle against the condo board and its longtime president, John Ward. In the tale’s latest twist, Pittel was elected last month to serve on the board he’s spent years fighting. But his victory was short-lived.
The condo’s lawyer informed Pittel a week later that he can’t take his board seat because of a restraining order that bars him from entering the Meadow Creek office building and forbids him from attending board meetings.
Not surprisingly, Pittel disagrees.
“There’s no law that says because you don’t like someone, you un-elect them,” said Pittel, a semiretired travel agent. “They could drop that restraining order if they wanted to.” That’s not going to happen, according to Ward, whose tenure as board president spans more than 20 years.
“I don’t think so,” Ward said this week. “He’s pretty disruptive.”
Pittel’s beef began one night about five years ago, he said, when Ward began remodeling a unit he owned adjacent to Pittel’s. Ward owns nearly 50 units at Meadow Creek, according to court documents, but doesn’t live there.
In fact, about two-thirds of the residents at Meadow Creek rent rather than own. The units are modest, typically selling for $50,000 or so, according to property records compiled by Pittel. With more than 530 units and more than 1,000 residents, the complex at Smetana Rd. and 11th Avenue S., is larger than many Minnesota cities.
Ward carried on his remodeling in the evening and other hours when the condo rules called for quiet, Pittel said.
“It made me mad,” he said. “I thought, ‘We have to follow the rules. Why doesn’t he?’ ” Not long after, the condo made expensive repairs to its swimming pool that wound up going far over budget. Pittel said he began to be concerned about the management of the complex.
Pittel created several websites and began posting accusations against Ward and the board members. He appeared at board meetings and loudly asked questions. He once appeared waving a sign reading, “Chicken [expletive] Board.” Finally, Pittel and 11 other residents sued Ward and the board, alleging that they withheld financial statements and other information about the operation of the complex. The board countersued, charging Pittel with defamation on his websites.
The result was a resounding victory for Ward and his fellow board members, with a scathing ruling from Hennepin County Judge Tanya Bransford. Pittel, who has a 1993 felony theft conviction for misusing client money in his cruise business, was found “not credible.” The judge noted his “volatile behavior” at board meetings. For his “false and libelous statements,” she ordered him to pay $100,000 to the condo association, $50,000 to Ward, and $10,000 to each of the other eight board members. The board is also seeking to make Pittel pay its legal fees of more than $237,000.
‘There are always issues’
Situations like the one at Meadow Creek are part of life in “common-interest communities,” said Todd Iliff, an Edina attorney who specializes in condominium law.
“There are always issues,” he said. “In some cases, there is a substantial amount of acrimony. As a general rule, if you have a large enough condo/townhouse community, you will have disputes … that will ultimately involve legal counsel on both sides.”
The city became involved because of a loan it made to the condo association more than 20 years ago, when Meadow Creek was facing serious financial issues. The City Council spent more than an hour discussing the Meadow Creek situation at a meeting in 2012. Ward acknowledged that the condo complex had gotten into financial trouble, then went on to express frustration over Pittel’s attacks.
“I’ve been cursed by his lies and accusations for the last two years,” Ward told the council.
Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson said the city’s involvement with Meadow Creek was an unusual situation unlikely to occur with any other neighborhood.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time we would not get in the middle of these things, nor would we want to,” he said.
Ward said Pittel’s actions harm all the condo owners. “He’s hurting their value, he’s hurting the salability” of their units, he said. “It is difficult.”
Despite his mounting setbacks, Pittel isn’t giving up the fight. He’s got a paralegal doing research, trying to find an avenue for him to take a seat on the board.
“If I am seated on the board, my intentions are not to be antagonistic,” he said. “I’m there to make sure I’m going to be a watchdog for the owners.”
He’s not worried about the legal judgments against him, either.
“At this point in my life, if I have to file for bankruptcy, it’s not going to make that much difference to me,” said Pittel, who is 71. “I’ll file bankruptcy and tell them to shove it. I’m tenacious. I’m the bulldog.”